October 15, 2012

Customers relax outside the Belfast Co-op. The store has become a cherished community center. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Water buffalo, yes water buffalo, raised in Appleton, is for sale at the Belfast Co-op. In fact there isn’t much that isn’t available there that has been naturally farmed or organically grown in Maine. From lamb to filet mignon, the selection of organically raised and grass-fed beef products, free-range poultry products, and fish is truly impressive. The only local seafood not available is lobster, and that’s only because they ran out of space.

The meat department makes their own hand-crafted sausages from local meats and poultry, and there is a wide artisan cheese selection representing cheese producers across the state and beyond.

“All their sausages are high quality, made fresh, and they have a lot of varieties. Everything I’ve tried has always been really really good,” said customer Dennis O’Merara as he purchased some sausage.

The repartee the 60 employees have with their customers is also really good. Dennis was greeted by his first name and immediately got into a conversation with the employee preparing his order, about how fast the sausage disappears and what to expect next week.

“Throughout the summer we average about 1,100 customers per day — in the winter it’s around 800. We know a lot of folks in our community. We really encourage communication between customers, managers, and buyers,” said Chris Grigsby, a general manager at the Belfast Co-op. “Our customers expect a knowledgeable, helpful staff. We train everyone in customer service — we rely on it. At the same time, the people who work here feel part of the Co-op community.”

Just walking up and down the aisles filled with specialty items for a variety of dietary needs, from gluten-free to vegan and vegetarian goods, it is common to witness people greeting old friends and conversations starting up spontaneously. Then some of them move off to the café for a coffee and some savory delight.

It’s clear the Co-op has become a community center for many customers, which enhances their overall shopping experience. Not many people are in a rush here, and many of them pledge their support as members of Maine’s oldest and largest community-owned food cooperative. After all, it is the members who have helped to Co-op evolve into what it has become, because it is run democratically.

This for-profit business has a unique business model —

The United Nations has declared 2012 to be the “Year of the Cooperative” to promote cooperatives as democratic, economic structures.

“We’re a consumer-based co-op. Our membership is really the start of the chain of command, which is very different from the corporate world,” said Grigsby. “Any consumer that comes in here has the opportunity to purchase a membership. One membership equals one vote — it’s equal across the board. No one person can come in and say, ‘give me 50 shares’ or be able to own a majority percentage of the company. It’s a totally democratic process.”

The board of directors works for the membership, as members elect them. There are three general mangers, currently Chris Grigsby, Joe Jordan, and Mylisa Vowles, who are hired by the board.

The cost of an individual membership equity investment amounts to $60, payable over three years. After that continued membership is only $15 per year. The initial equity investment can be returned to customers who move away or are dissatisfied. There is also an equity assistance programs for anyone who wants to become a member but maybe financially challenged. The Co-op is truly inclusive. Some profits are returned to members through services, capital improvements, specialized discounts, and patronage dividends, which started a number of years ago. Any financial surplus from member sales is returned to the Co-op members in proportion to their purchases. Individual members can choose if they would like to reinvest their profits by helping the equity assistance program or in some other way. Sometimes store policies are developed out of the experiences or recommendations of employees.

“We also have a suggestion book members and customers write in,” said Grigsby.

The variety of specialty healthy items has helped to grow the Co-op’s reputation. At times restaurant chefs peruse the isles, looking for that extra secret ingredient to add to their menus. Scores of diverse groups meet in the café, and Tuesday is senior discount day. There is a health and nutrition department with dietary supplements. Natural beauty products, other gifts and health orientated books are also for sale.

The Co-op buys some items in bulk to pass savings on to customers, like beans, grain, granola, nuts and other healthy snacks. Their bulk herbs and spices represent a tremendous savings. Buying a small glass container with a fancy label of a herb could cost around $5; the same amount of the herb in a bag at the Co-op would be about a dollar. Unnecessary packaging inflates prices and hurts some of the earth’s natural resources.

As a recent member of the national co-op network, the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) the Belfast store is realizing more bulk savings. Co-op stores from different states are now networking to buy more together. This translates into savings for Co-op members.

People are looking for local, organically grown produce and healthy solutions

Grigsby worked in wholesale produce before landing at the Co-op five years ago. He knows how food is shipped across the country and how its nutritional value diminishes after long freight trips.

“Buyers know our produce is fresh because we buy local. It’s not shipped on a truck from Boston, making it a week old before we sell it,” said the manager.

The Co-op keeps track of local products with their computers which enables them to see what customers are purchasing. Having locally grown, organic products boosts sales.

“We just surpassed sales of $1 million this year, for locally grown products. It’s pretty exciting,” said Grigsby. “Three years ago it was more around $400,000. It’s great to see the community supporting local producers.”

The local produce welcomes any customer who walks in the door, and it’s organized with labels identifying which local farm grew it. From tomatoes to specialized salad greens, the freshness is clearly visible.

The Co-op provides local farmers and venders with a unique avenue for their products, without having to deal with the red tape that corporate-run operations sometimes have in place.

“We will support a local grower who just isn’t big enough to be certified organic, but is following all the official requirements. We make common sense accommodations for local folks,” said Grigsby. “We have over 2,000 products locally made or locally grown.”

Grigsby could be managing a larger operation but chooses to devote himself to the Co-op and its membership.

“I like the direction where this type of business model is headed. It doesn’t put profit first. It’s community oriented; it’s really a lot about the greater good,” said Grigsby. “I’ve been in the business of feeding people for quite a while. Here at the Co-op it doesn’t always have to be food alone that you are feeding them. It’s a concept, food nutrition, preventative health care, taking care of your body. All these things make the Co-op a lifestyle.”

The Co-op is a community health information center —

The Co-op is a resource for information about health and nutrition and supplies dietary supplements.

“We have a lot of folks that come into our store for the first time with a prescription from their doctor, because they were just diagnosed with a chronic illness that’s diet related. So, they come here for a healthy remedy,” said Grigsby. “In this area, a lot of doctors are giving diet prescriptions to people to cut out meat or sugar, or for a gluten intolerance. They send them here because they know we have options.”

The Co-op staffs a herbalist and others who can explain many of the healthy remedies and nutritional supplements on the shelves, which need guidance to be used properly. They also employ an outreach coordinator and a special-events coordinator, who arrange co-op talks at local schools.

“It’s great when a kid comes in and shows their parents what is good for them to eat. Part of our mission statement is to educate our members about the values of eating healthy. We just sponsored a talk at the library with a known nutritionist, and it was standing-room only,” said Grigsby. “We do all the health-food fairs. Often the school lunch directors go to them. We hope they’ll take healthy options back with them, when they set their lunch programs for the year.“

The Belfast Co-op did something remarkable when the recession hit; its profits actually grew —

“Dairy, meat, cheese, fresh bread, and produce sales have gone up 25 percent since 2008,” said Grigsby. “At the same time, discretionary spending, like beer, wine, and specialty items grew as well, but not at the same pace, which reflects the economy.”

Grigsby attributes some of the growth to a shift in awareness about eating local, organically grown foods and supporting local farms and local products.

“People are making changes about their lifestyles. They want to know more about what they eat and where it was grown; the vast majority of the produce sold here is certified organic,” said Grigsby. “There were also food scares that concerned a lot of folks.”

With salmonella on spinach, tainted beef, and other food having to be recalled, more consumers continue to question where their food comes from. Big supermarket chains now have devoted large sections to organic produce; some even have developed their brand-name organic products. When the Co-op started, it was bucking the trend — now it’s showing the way forward.

“When the larger grocery stores looked and saw how the health-food sector was doing, they decided it’s good for business to offer healthy solutions,” said Grigsby. “We have a couple hundred local venders a year that we do business with.”

Farmers don’t have to rely just on farmer’s markets, community supported agriculture programs, or farm stands, with the Co-op willing to reach out to help local farmers.

“What sets us apart from larger businesses is that we are willing to take on the extra work to pull in local vendors. That’s important to us. In other large operations they want the vendor to fit into their system.”

At the Co-op, vendors can come in with a product, drop off the invoice, and get paid two weeks later. The Co-op deals with thousands of invoices a week. For larger stores like Whole Foods, vendors have to wait 60 to 90 days to be paid.

“In the spring we do some cash-on-delivery payments for our farmers. We know that they have spent a lot on seeds and tending their crops already,” said Grigsby. “We provide a fair price to our producers and a fair price for our customers. We’re not interested in marking up our products like the other big stores do. We’re willing to take a reduced margin on our end.”

According to Grigsby, the Co-op grossed over $6 million in 2011.

“One hand washes the other. We offer a service of quality, healthy products, and our customers serve us by continuing to support the Co-op,” said Grigsby.

This successful Co-op model had simple beginnings —

When the back-to-land movement was gaining ground in Maine in 1976, a group of people were looking for another way to get healthier food to people. They went to Boston and bought grain and pulses in bulk, brought them back to Liberty, and sold them out of a garage. This Friends Co-op soon grew as word caught on, and they found that they needed a storefront. In 1979 they opened a store in Belfast and continued to see growth, and they moved again in 1985 into a bigger building, adding a new small produce section and dietary supplements. Finally in 1993, they moved into the space they now own, which has 5,000 square feet of retail space. And every inch is filled.

“It’s a pretty grass-roots, small-growth model- of a little growth over time,” said Grigsby in the packed café, with patrons laughing and enjoying meals prepared in the kitchen. “It’s working. The Co-op has become a cherished community space.”

One of the members who originally started the Co-op out of the garage still serves on the board.

“Co-ops emphasize the connections between growers and buyers, country and city, animal welfare and food quality, farming practices and environmental/health concerns, co-op and members. By joining a co-op, members commit themselves to a business that serves and reinvests in the community and exists for no other reason,” said Elizabeth Archerd, a member of the Wedge Co-op, in Community Co-op News, Nov-Dec 1996, which is quoted on the Belfast Co-op’s website.

The Belfast Co-op achieves those goals without question. Many people believe that having the store in town has influenced the growth of the downtown and surrounding community, with the success of other healthy lifestyle businesses, art-based co-ops, and local organic farms and specialty producers.

“One of the core things about Belfast I love is that the community here are very accepting of folks from away who chose to make this area home,” said Grigsby. “The community has grown in a certain direction, and I’d like to think having the Co-op here helped that process.”

Facts about the national cooperative movement and its impact on the economy:

• More than 29,000 cooperatives operate in every sector of the US economy, generating two million jobs, annual sales of $652 billion, and with assets of $3 trillion.
• About 233 million people are served by insurance companies owned by or affiliated with co-ops.
• Agricultural co-ops include the majority of all U.S. farmers, providing 250,000 jobs and annual wages of $8 billion.
• More than 50,000 families in the U.S.A. use cooperative daycare facilities.
• About 7,500 credit unions, which are financial cooperatives, have about 91 million members and $750 Billion in assets.
• And electric cooperatives serve 42 million customers nationwide.